N.C. House members ask for investigation of Catawba casino development

The future site of the Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort off Dixon School Road in Cleveland County. The Catawba Indian Nation broke ground on the controversial project last July. (Photo by Joe Killian)

N.C. House Democrats are calling for an investigation into the Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort, now under development in Kings Mountain.

As a Policy Watch investigative series illuminated last year, there have for years been questions about conflicts of interest and potential political corruption in the development.

Last week WRAL reported  Attorney General Josh Stein will decline the request , saying any investigation would have to come at the local level.

The WRAL report also quotes Kings Mountain mayor Scott Neisler as dismissing the letter asking for an investigation.

From the story:

The letter questions whether there were any “closed door hearings” where local leaders “might have received information that could be used to gain improper benefits.” It also says unnamed properties were “bought by a nearly untraceable network of LLCs, sometimes by entities that do not seem to have any legal organization or registration.”

The letter mentions one local name: Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler, saying he stands to benefit from casino development through family land nearby.

Neisler told WRAL News Friday that he would welcome an investigation. He said he doesn’t expect to profit from the casino and that the roughly 700 acres his family owns a few miles from the project is, for the most part, being mined and “not buildable because of the mineral rights on it.”

“There’s no smoke here,” he said.

 

Policy Watch’s investigation found  the Neisler family owns land valued at $4.2 million in the area, including a 783 parcel within a mile of the new casino. Neisler confirmed those figures with Policy Watch last year, did not make the claim that mineral rights would prevent development and denied his family company’s large holdings amounted to a conflict of interests.

“My house even in town is going to go up in price, so that’s a conflict of interest” Neisler told Policy Watch. “But that’s kind of looking in futuristic terms and saying, ‘Hey, something two miles down the road is going to be worth a whole lot because this is coming in.’ Well, it could and it couldn’t. I don’t know.”

The Catawba and Cherokee tribes have been in conflict over the casino development for years.

At issue:  a proposed $273 million, 17-acre project in Cleveland County. The Catawba Indian Nation  has been working for seven years to make the resort a reality. It plans gaming tables, 1,300 electronic game machines as well as restaurants, which it says will economically benefit the tribe and the area.

Although the Catawba’s headquarters are just across the border in Rock Hill, SC, the tribe claims the 17 acres in North Carolina as its ancestral land. The US Department of the Interior initially rejected the tribe’s request to acquire the land, citing a land settlement act approved by Congress in 1993. Under that act, the Catawba tribe is prohibited by South Carolina law from pursuing more lucrative gaming, having to restrict itself to high-stakes bingo. But the federal government reversed that decision in March, allowing the tribe to cross state lines and break ground on the resort in July.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opposes the resort. That tribe, which operates two casinos in western North Carolina, also claims the land in question as its ancestral territory and is suing in federal court. Tribal leaders say the federal government allowing the Catawba to move across state lines for the purposes of more lucrative gaming interests sets a bad precedent.

“That deal clearly smells of stinky money,” Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, told WRAL last week.

“I don’t see how this looks like anything other than some insider deal that somebody’s going to cash in on,” he said.

North Carolina Senators condemn violence against Asian Americans, urge passage of Hate Crime Prevention Act

North Carolina’s Asian American community is calling for change and greater protections in the aftermath of the deadly shootings in Atlanta that claimed eight lives.

Sen. Jay J. Chaudhuri

Senator Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) and Senator Mujtaba Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg) introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act at a Thursday press conference.

The proposed legislation expands protections against hate crimes based on ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability and sexual orientation. The bill would increase the punishment for hate crimes and make it mandatory for the State Bureau of Investigation to collect and analyze information about hate crimes from state and local law enforcement agencies. Another component of the bill would provide training about such crimes to law enforcement and prosecutors.

“I’m under no illusion the passage of this bill will do away with hate crimes and hate groups, but this legislation does build trust within our communities that are targeted by hate crimes,” said Sen. Chaudhuri.

Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed

Earlier this week, Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 hate crime incidents between March 19 and February 28. The national group said the number could be higher, simply because not all incidents are reported.

In 68% of these cases, Asian Americans reported verbal harassment, with physical assaults in 11% of the cases. Other cases involved workplace discrimination and refusal of service.

Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed believes these numbers drive policy, making it essential for North Carolina do a better job collecting and analyzing crimes that appear to be motivated by hate.

“If we don’t report the data, those in power and the public will believe that hate crimes are not an issue and it becomes much more difficult to tackle a very real problem,” explained Mohammed.

“When law enforcement does not report, it sends a very clear message that we do not value public safety for all people.”

Click below to hear an emotional Sen Mohammed press for the legislation to get a hearing:

Women were more than twice as likely to report incidents of hate than men in the new Stop AAPI Hate report.

Chavi Khanna Koneru, Executive Director of North Carolina Asian AmericansTogether (NCAAT), said the multiple shootings in neighboring Georgia have shaken many in the community.

Chavi Khanna Koneru, NCAAT

“Even though it has been in the news more for the past few months, anti-Asian discrimination and violence is not new,” said Koneru, noting the six year anniversary of the anti-Islamic attack on three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill.

Koneru said there is much diversity in the Asian American community in terms of ethnicity and political beliefs.

“This is a matter that has impacted our entire community and deserves to be considered.”

Gerald Givens, Raleigh-Apex NAACP

A virtual vigil organized in part by NCAAT drew 250 participants Wednesday evening.

Edward Binanay, President of Asian Pacific Islander Outreach blamed the spike in violence on xenophobic rhetoric, falsely  blaming Asian Americans for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been the fabric of this country and for centuries we have been part of America,” said Binanay in calling for an inter-racial dialogue educating American about the long and proud history of Asian Americans in this country.

Also lending a voice in support of the legislation was Gerald Givens, president of the Raleigh-Apex NAACP.

“No one is born to hate. Hate is taught. It begins with language. It begins with the language in our homes,” Givens said.

Sen. Chaudhuri called the new measure a common sense proposal, acknowledging the state’s current ethnic intimidation statute does not address ethnicity, gender identity, disability or sexual orientation.

“We know from research that some of our largest law enforcement agencies report zero hate crimes, because currently hate crime reporting is voluntary and not mandatory,” said Chaudhuri. “It’s very hard to make public policy when we’re not collecting such data.”

On Thursday, President Joe Biden ordered flags fly at half staff in respect for the victims of “the senseless acts of violence” in Atlanta.

Rural interests on a health coverage council want Medicaid expansion, countering expansion deemphasis in a final report.

YouTube Preview ImageFive members of the NC Council on Health Care Coverage who were among those representing rural interests in the group asserted this week that some form of Medicaid expansion is “the fix that will provide insurance options for those in the coverage gap and that will benefit rural economies.”

Their statement came as the nearly 40-member Council tied a bow on the guiding principles it hopes the legislature will use to get more North Carolinians insured. Those principles look beyond Medicaid expansion to other ways to get more people insured and to improve access to medical care.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, created the Council late last year after he failed in his first term to get the Republican-led legislature to agree to a form of Medicaid expansion. The Council represented a range of interests and views.  Members included some of the staunchest expansion opponents in the legislature along with Medicaid expansion’s strongest supporters, local elected officials, large and small business owners, the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC, the head of the NC Chamber, and others.

North Carolina tied with Arizona at 41st in a state ranking of uninsured residents.

The group met under the auspices of the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

The principles the group produced is a long list that starts with “maximize health care coverage,” and includes an array of approaches may be required, such as association health plans for small businesses, allowing new mothers to keep their Medicaid coverage longer than the current 60-day post-birth cut off, allowing low-income parents to keep their Medicaid coverage if their children are placed in foster care, Medicaid expansion, and tax credits for employers.

A bill moving through the Senate would allow low-income parents who need court-ordered mental health or substance abuse treatment and whose children have been placed in foster care to keep their Medicaid coverage.

A prepared statement from Patrick Woodie, president of the NC Rural Center, Pastor James Brigman of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Rockingham, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority CEO Casey Cooper, Granville-Vance Public Health District director Lisa Macon Harrison, and Graham County Commissioner Dale Wiggins said that Medicaid expansion was the strongest option the Council considered.

“There is no other single policy solution that the legislature can enact that will bring this level of funding to our local economies, help small businesses, stabilize our health care system, and offer quality insurance coverage options for the people of North Carolina. The pandemic has further highlighted the need for better access to whole-person care for all ages in all corners of our state.,” their statement said.

Medicaid expansion would allow hundreds of thousands of residents to get health insurance, with the federal government paying most of the costs. Senate Republicans have objected, saying that costs to the state could balloon.

Two members of the Council, celebrity chef Vivian Howard of Kinston and Don Flow, founder and CEO of Flow Automotive Companies, said in a media briefing Thursday that members with differing opinions had to find common ground.

Howard said she thought all business owners would be in the group, and that everyone would want Medicaid expansion.

“I thought we would all be on the same side,” she said. However, members represented diverse viewpoints and professional backgrounds.

“We all wanted something a little different,” she said. “It was a very grown-up conversation. I was proud of everyone.”

North Carolina could be a model for incorporating “a wider range of possibilities” toward the goal of getting more people insured, Flow said.

The options “may allow us to effectively break out of the log-jam we’ve been in and do something really distinctive and unique in North Carolina,” he said.

NC Senate advances a bipartisan bill to allow some parents seeking drug treatment to keep Medicaid coverage

The state Senate is advancing a bill that aims to allow parents who are on Medicaid and temporarily lose custody of their children to stay on the government insurance plan so they can more easily get drug or mental health treatment.

Senate Bill 93 would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to ask the federal government for permission to keep these parents in the Medicaid program.

Sen. Danny Britt, a Lumberton Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said staying on Medicaid would make it easier for parents to obtain court-ordered substance abuse or mental health treatment while their children are in foster care. Losing Medicaid causes months-long delays while parents search for other ways to pay for treatment, he said.

“We all know the statutory goal is reunification,” he said.

The bill has bipartisan support and the Senate Health Care Committee gave it unanimous approval Wednesday.

“I applaud your effort in trying to get this done,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat.

It is not clear how many adults would be able to keep their insurance coverage under the bill.

Britt said the change would cost the state $5 million. North Carolina Medicaid is a $16.7 billion health insurance program that enrolls about 2.5 million people – mostly low-income children, elderly adults, and people with disabilities. The federal government pays most of the costs.

Parents qualify for Medicaid if their family income is 41% below the federal poverty level, or $8,905 a year for a family of three.

Most adults under age 65 who do not have disabilities or dependent children do not qualify for Medicaid.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and DHHS secretary Mandy Cohen want the state to expand Medicaid, which would make more low-income adults eligible for the health insurance program. Republican legislative leaders oppose Medicaid expansion.

As Equality Act passes in U.S. House, state LGBTQ advocates continue push for local protections as well

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act Thursday, an essential first hurdle to new LGBTQ protections under existing federal civil rights laws on housing, public access, education and federally funded programs.

But as the legislation now heads to the Senate, LGBTQ advocates in North Carolina say the push for local non-discrimination ordinances must maintain its recent momentum whatever the outcome at the federal level.

“It passed the House but it has an uphill battle in the Senate,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality N.C. “It needs 60 votes in the Senate and as you saw in the almost fully partisan vote in the House, it’s going to take some maneuvering to get to that 60 and really ratify the Equality Act.”

In December a state ban on new LGBTQ protections — including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing — was lifted. The ban was a legacy of the  brutal fight over HB 2 and HB 142, the controversial laws that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections. Since it was lifted, six communities have unanimously voted to pass LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances — Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, Durham, Greensboro, Orange County.

Those local efforts are vital even as progress is made at the federal level, Johnson said.

“Everyone needs local protections, regardless,” Johnson said. “You’d want to have it ideally on all three levels of the government. Even though we’re part of a federal and a state framework, you want to have local mechanisms you can access. And that is why we see a federal civil rights code and civil rights statutes at the state level and then in some cities.”

Adam Polaski, communications director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, agreed.

Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC

“We see these various mechanisms as working in concert,” Polaski said. “The passage of local ordinances in North Carolina underlines that our state is ready for nondiscrimination and puts pressure on Senators Tillis and Burr to do the right thing by voting for the Equality Act. Meanwhile, the advancement of the Equality Act should encourage local leaders in North Carolina to take urgent action on behalf of LGBTQ North Carolinians and signal the moral and legal imperative for their communities to pass protections. We can and just end anti-LGBTQ discrimination and an essential step is securing the protections.”

The Equality Act would establish an important baseline, Polaski said — but it would create a floor for protections, not a ceiling.

“This is especially important in areas like private employment,” Polaski said. “Many of the local ordinances in North Carolina protect people from employment discrimination even at employers with 15 or fewer employees, which is more protective than existing federal law.”

One-third of all LGBTQ Americans live in the South,said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. They often face legislatures who continue to be hostile to progress on non-discrimination protections, despite polling that shows public support for such protections across party and geographical lines.

“So we have worked at every level of government to create protections,” Beach-Ferrara said. “From local communities passing ordinances, to encouraging executive and administrative actions at the state level, to working to elect pro-equality candidates at the local, state and federal levels.”

This week the Center for American Progress held a roundtable discussion on behalf of the Faith for Equality coalition where LGBTQ and faith leaders discussed the importance of the Equality Act.

One of the biggest names in American furniture, North Carolina’s Mitchell Gold, talked about the central nature of non-discrimination in building his Taylorsvile-based business.

Mitchell Gold

“As a businessperson whose second nature it is to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity or race, religion, etc., that has served my business well since our founding over 30 years ago,” Gold said. “Enabling us to become a nationally recognized prestige home furnishings brand.”

In the business world he and his company might be described as “conservative,” he said — a description that should denote careful consideration and a willingness to devote deep thought and research into issues before acting. The sort of reactionary anti-LGBTQ sentiment he sees from the local level to Washington is anything but conservative, he said.

Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, said that while recent Supreme Court decisions and a more friendly presidential administration have allowed progress, LGBTQ protections need to be enshrined in law — local, state and federal.

“We cannot depend on always having a friendly administration; we cannot always depend on the courts to get it right,” Chandy said. “We need to have these protections in our federal civil rights laws.”

Johnson agreed. President Joe Biden’s administration has already reversed some of the anti-LGBTQ moves of former President Donald Trump’s administration, she said — but in a sense, that shows the volatile nature of the community’s rights without strong protections enshrined in law.

“We had three strong movements at the top of the year with the Biden administration,” Johnson said. “The reversal of the trans military ban, we had the interpretation of Bostock throughout his administration to utilize sex as sexual orientation and gender identity and then we had Housing and Urban Development also interpreting sex, with regard to discrimination, as sexual orientation and gender identity in terms of fair housing. Those are three huge things but we still have a long, long way to go.”

“Unfortunately, identities have become politicized,” Johnson said. “The reality is, there are things in our very constitution and even our Declaration of Independence where we say that we should all have equal rights but that has never, ever been the reality in these here United States. And so we still have work to do.”